A Humble Righteousness
By Anthony Casperson
The artist had once practiced their craft for the joy of the experience. They were amazing. The world clamored to bear witness to their genius. They were at the top of their profession.
But then something changed. Their interest became directed toward the accolades associated with their art rather than the craft itself. They craved the attention. They became addicted to the power of being a culture shaper. And they grew accustomed to a certain quality of life. And in that shift of priority, the art suffered.
The pursuit of greater acclaim led them to do increasingly theatrical stunts. Everything was done with overly dramatic flair. They shouted from the rooftops and every street corner for the attention. Even their wardrobe choice screamed, “Look at me. Wonder at my grandeur.” The desire for accolades became the driving force of every action.
Oh, they played the game well. Feigning humility even while they called forth more praise. The artist called out others who had drifted from their craft, ever turning a blind eye to their own shifting priorities.
It’s easy for us to point out others who have lost sight of the purpose for their actions. Even more so when it comes to their spiritual lives. But sometimes we lose perspective on the fact that we too have succumbed to the trap of seeking the acclaim of others rather than pursuing the holiness of God. We have to take a step back and ask, “Am I more interested in growing to be more like God, or receiving the accolades of religiously-minded people?”
While in Matthew 5, Jesus had spoken much about the extent of righteousness for those who belong to the Kingdom of God. He spoke of a righteousness that exceeded even that of the Pharisees. But the purpose was never to act like them when it came to their religiosity.
In Matthew 6:1-21, Jesus makes this point. He even goes so far as to forewarn his listeners of the dangers of using our spiritual lives as a means of receiving accolades from others. Not only does the act of righteousness suffer, but it will account for nothing in the end. The empty praise of others becomes our grand prize. And a fleeting prize will never satisfy for long.
Three separate spiritual disciplines represent the point of an extreme righteousness that maintains a humble pursuit of God: giving to the poor, praying, and fasting. Jesus could have chosen many other actions, but these three are enough to prove his point. And this is all the more true when it comes to the overly dramatic fashion which the religious and cultural elite of the Jesus’ day acted out for their supposed righteousness.
Jesus calls these individuals hypocrites. The word, as I’ve mentioned before, is used for a stage actor. In Greco-Roman theaters, an actor would wear a mask for their part, allowing them to take on multiple roles in the play, as long as the two characters never needed to be on the stage at the same time.
But it has also, recently, been brought up to me that stage actors would often speak in thunderous voices (so that they could be heard) and use giant gestures (so as to be seen throughout the theater). The hypocrites were masters of grand dramatics so as to draw attention to themselves. No wonder Jesus speaks of the Pharisees in such a manner.
He says not to be like the hypocrites who draw crowds to themselves through great pomp and circumstance before they dole out their wad of cash to the needy. Some scholars even point out that the collection box for the needy in Jerusalem was trumpet-shaped. And thus, when tossing metal coins into the metallic trumpet, one could purposefully sound the trumpet with every penny toss.
Rather, a humble righteousness gives without a desire for notice. The gift might be a small amount, or it might be everything we have, but the gift is empty if our pursuit is the praise of those who bear witness to our act. Our reward for acting in line with the righteousness God has commended to us comes from him. It might not always be monetary, or immediate, but God bestows his congratulations on all who act rightly. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied.
Jesus continues by saying that we shouldn’t model our prayers after the hypocrites either. They love to stand in regular meeting places to shout out “personal” prayers to God. Or they stand on the corners of well-traveled roads to call forth an audience like a street magician to show off their “amazing” prayers.
And Jesus even goes further than speaking of the hypocritical spiritual and cultural leaders of their society by talking about not praying like the other nations. They think that by a whole lot of words they can convince, confuse, or irritate a good answer from the recipient of their prayer.
Neither option shows the humble righteousness meant for those belonging to the Kingdom of God. Rather, we should remove ourselves from every distraction that keeps us from focusing on the object of our worship. And our prayers should remind us of our place before our Father: dependent on him while seeking to become ever more like him. Jesus even gives an example of a prayer in Matthew 6:9-15.
After this, Jesus continues his sermon saying that when we fast, we shouldn’t be like the hypocrites. They loved showing off their gauntness, hoping that the grumbling of their stomachs would echo their self-righteous discipline. They would even purposefully distort their faces into a mask of gloom to show how devoted they were to their enacted “holiness.”
Rather, we who seek righteousness in humility shouldn’t make ourselves look any differently than we would on a day that we weren’t fasting. Wash up and dress regularly. If we’re spending time fasting, it’s for devotion to God. No one else needs to know just by looking at us that we’re seeking God in this specific way.
The reward comes from God, if he is the one for whom we act righteously. And this is the only reward that will last. Jesus speaks in Matthew 6:19-21 that seeking earthly treasures will leave us with only moths and rust. The accolades of others will leave us empty. Only when our reward is a heavenly gift from God, will we have something that lasts.
The whole purpose of the extreme righteousness of Matthew 5 is not so that we can gather up earthly treasures that’ll fade. It’s so that we can bear the image of God in our righteousness. Our growth to becoming holy, like God is holy, diminishes once we start pursuing the accolades of others rather than God.
It’s not that others won’t ever see us acting in line with God’s commands. After all, a city on a hill can’t be hidden. But if our purpose in seeking righteousness is for the glory of God, then we won’t become a sellout, over-dramatizing our actions while we hide the truth of who we really are behind a mask.